Tuesday 3 January 2012

Rituals (1977)

Director: Peter Carter
Stars: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James and Gary Reineke

Sometimes it's impossible not to watch a movie without imaging what it would be like if remade nowadays. Rituals is yet another story about a group of people leaving civilisation behind to find more than they expected in the middle of nowhere: you've seen it before and you'll see it again, but how? If shot today, the five protagonists would be young and gorgeous, happy to strip buck naked whenever possible; but in Rituals they're five middle aged male doctors, fishing barefoot. Nowadays they'd be partying it on down all night; but here they merely enjoy being out of their comfort zone. In 2012 one would film the others in footage to be found once everyone's dead; but in 1977 found footage thankfully hadn't been invented yet so the style is natural and doesn't induce motion sickness. Rituals even opens with a very 1970s easy listening theme rather than the rap or metal soundtrack you'd get today. Only beer and pot are constants over 40 years.

The most obvious difference is that instead of being a slasher flick whose death scenes are the only things to really pay attention to, here there's suspense and substance. The most obvious film to raise as a comparison is Deliverance, made five years earlier, and it wouldn't surprise me if there are five doctors here because there were only four businessmen in that film. Beyond having middle aged men hunted down a river within a wilderness, both films are fundamentally about guilt, though that's handled differently in each film. Deliverance spoke most prominently to guilt that the main characters develop over the course of the film because of actions taken within it, while Rituals speaks to less defined guilt from the past, which adds a sense of mystery to the picture. What do these doctors have to feel guilty about? That isn't just a question for us, it's one that they have to ask themselves too.

Certainly Rituals isn't as accomplished a film as Deliverance but it's still worthy of mention in the same breath and it has much to offer on its own merits. The story is a tough and unrelenting one that never lets up on its characters, mentally or physically, and it did no less on the actors. The budget didn't stretch to special effects, so the cast were called upon to actually do what we see them do in the film, albeit with safety nets to avoid the sort of catastrophic outcomes that await the characters. They really do walk through a swamp, have a bee hive thrown at them and fight in dangerous rapids. The budget didn't even allow for multiple takes in many instances, so often the scenes we see were captured in a single shot, avoiding a slick edge to the action but aiding the natural feel. Also helping this was the decision to shoot the film chronologically, so leads Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane really do get more and more grizzled as time runs on.
Holbrook plays Harry, a talented surgeon and ethical doctor who is still coming to terms with the death of his father, a drunk he had written off. A Vietnam veteran, he knows a thing or two about survival and it helps that he's the pragmatic one of the bunch, quiet and down to earth, usually getting the last word. Dane is the unfortunately named Mitzi, the loud one of the bunch. When things start going south, he throws out bad ideas at the least provocation. When they continue that way, he's the one who wants to give up, argue about how bad everything is or blame the others. He took care of Harry's dad's when the time came but is obviously uncomfortable with his own ethics as pertains to his work. Rounding out the five are Ken James as the routine Abel and a pair of brothers, Martin and DJ, played by Robin Gammell and Gary Reineke respectively. DJ is an irascible voice of reason, while Martin calls himself 'an independent alcoholic.'

They're dropped in a heavily forested area that the Indians poetically call the Cauldron of the Moon. It's only fifteen miles to civilisation but they're hardly well prepared for anything beyond their most basic expectations. The first step into chaos is when their boots are stolen while they fish. DJ had told them all to bring spare pairs but, of course, nobody did. None of them expected to be stalked through the wilderness by a crazed killer, naturally, but Martin's backpack is full of Scotch and toilet paper. It wouldn't bode well for him even if the killer hadn't shown up, which of course he does. We don't see him until the end and don't find out who he is until close to that point, which also adds mystery, but he makes his presence very apparent through a set of setpiece actions. It's pretty obvious that whenever these doctors go to sleep, the killer is going to have something memorably nasty ready for them when they wake up.
I grew up watching Murder, Mystery, Suspense on British TV, which was a timeslot dedicated for the most part to American films featuring one or more of those attributes. Most were probably made during the seventies, possibly for TV, and to my young and inexperienced eyes they felt like tame equivalents to the outrageous horror novels I was devouring. More recently I've often wondered how good they actually were, whether I didn't appreciate suspense as much as gore at the time and if I wouldn't find them tame today. Maybe I'll never know but every time I see an American thriller that obviously dates itself to the seventies, I ask myself those questions again. This one stands up very well indeed with some memorable shock scenes, a gruelling pace and a number of gorgeous long shots. Some almost hide the leads in distance, others turn close ups into long shots with easy camera movements and one makes the cresting of a hill truly powerful.

Of the cast and crew, I was only really familiar with Hal Holbrook, who had made his name on TV with four Emmy wins out of twelve nominations, but was instantly recognisable in many films. I don't know if I remember him best from Magnum Force, Capricorn One or The Fog, perhaps even Fletch Lives. He hopped genres continually. Lawrence Dane got the part of Mitzi because he also produced the film, but he knew which character would work for him as an actor and he was right. The others get far less opportunity to demonstrate their acting chops but they do exactly what they should. Writer Ian Sutherland and director Peter Carter obviously enjoyed working together, as they teamed up for another film, Highpoint, in 1982, just before Carter died of a heart attack. A comedy featuring the highest stunt fall ever shot for a movie, it wasn't as successful as this. I wonder if, had he lived, they'd have returned to darker material like this that they did so well.

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